Frank Sinatra had seen me do a television special with Gizelle McKensie and Pat Boone and he said, “I want that girl.” Frank wanted me, because they couldn’t get Shelly Winters… so, I went up and met Frank at his house on Beaumont Drive. I was nervous when I rang the bell, terrified, when I heard his recorded message from the gate speaker.
“You better have a goddamned good reason for being here.”
His house was decorated all in Japanese and he was a gracious host spending hours talking about this new film, which was based on the novel by James Jones that would be directed by Vincent Minnelli. They were already in production and I was asked to report on location to Madison, Indiana as soon as possible.
Upon learning that I had landed the role of Ginny Moorhead, I immediately went to a specialty store and had a stuffed toy dog made, which I would use as a prop for the role.
I boarded a bus for Madison and arrived on location completely in character. Frank saw me get off the bus and just fell down laughing, “That’s Ginny,” he said.
Before long, Frank, Dean and I started hanging out together. It was great to renew my friendship with Dean Martin after Artists and Models. He was more relaxed and in good spirits and fun to be with and, in my opinion, his role as Bama in Some Came Running was the best acting of his very talented, very lengthy career.
I stayed at a hotel, which was adjacent to the house that had been rented for Dean and Frank. I was the only woman in the cast or crew that was allowed into that house. I was fortunate to spend considerable time in their private world, tidying up for them, arranging flowers and making the place livable. All they did is play gin rummy and entertain ‘friends’.
There was always some guy from the mob there. That’s where I met Sam Giancana. We played gin together and he would always cheat by looking at the reflection of my cards in my reading glasses to see what cards I held in my hand.
The people of Madison surrounded the house night and day, sometimes four abreast, hoping and waiting to see these male movie idols. We had to keep the curtains drawn for privacy and that soon started to wear on all of us. It was like living in a tomb! It became a surreal experience as women would break through the police barricade, enter the house and target Frank and Dean, ripping at their clothes. What most men would dream of happening to them, Frank detested. He had a fetish about personal cleanliness, sometimes showering five or six times a day, and after a close encounter with an over active female admirer he would head for the shower.
Frank had some serious issues with the director, Vincent Minnelli. One day, while we were shooting the Ferris wheel scene where key dialogue and action would take place, his anger boiled over into a bitter confrontation. Vincent did not like the camera angle and instead of moving the camera for a better angle he insisted that this huge Ferris wheel be dismantled and moved which would have meant several days in lost time. Frank blew up and said “F… you!”
He got into his limo and said to Dean, “Dago, get in. We are going back to L.A.” And off they went! Sol Siegle, head of the studio, finally convinced them to return.
In the original James Jones book, Some Came Running, the Dave character played by Sinatra gets killed at the end, but Frank went to Vincent and said, “Look, I want the kid to get killed, she’ll get an Oscar nomination. I don’t care about my role. Let the kid get killed.” Whatever Frank wanted, Frank got. So, Ginny took the bullet instead of Dave and I got an Oscar nomination because of Frank’s generosity.
The film was a major success for all. It made more than four million dollars in the United States alone. It was the turning point in my film career, bringing me my first Oscar nomination for best actress. I didn’t win (Susan Hayward did for I Want To Live), but what a thrill.
1958 was a very busy year for me, as I went from drama in Hot Spell with the Broadway great, Shirley Booth and the premier director, Daniel Mann to the comedy-drama The Sheepman and back again with Shirley Booth, Tony Perkins and Robert Morse in The Matchmaker.
Once again, I had the privilege of working with Shirley Booth and a wonderful new actor named, Tony Perkins. Shirley Booth was a genuine person and I loved to watch her work with the props. Tony Perkins was a prissy type guy and became the butt of a lot of jokes, because at the time no one knew he was gay, so he was trying desperately to cover it up and in doing so, the true feelings that he had about himself and life in general were very confused. Robert Morse on the other hand was outgoing, confident and zany in nature. He would get drunk and then dive, fully clothed into the shallow side of the pool, all the time laughing and fully aware that he was wonderfully crazy!
The Sheepman was the first film I had done off of the Paramount lot and I was nervous about the western, which was starring, World War II Marine and tough guy, Glenn Ford. I was the only gal in the film and I arrived on set in immaculate cowgirl togs and immediately was met by the films director, George Marshall who threw a couple fistfuls of dirt over my new clothes. In the first minute all of them [the cast] knocked me down, rolled me in the dirt and said, ‘O.K., now you can play a western.’ A moment later I doused my tormentors with a bucket of water and asked them if they would like to cool off and from that time on they knew that I wasn’t a prima donna and everyone could relax on the set and be themselves. And boy did they ever! Marshall and my co-stars, their language, oh golly!
I learned how to rope and ride a horse on this picture and my role of the hard-boiled cowgirl was the real me. Or at least the way I dressed in this western was me, when at home away from the prying eyes of the media. I loved jeans and sloppy old clothes.
I learned about superstition and haunted houses from Glenn Ford.
The Sheepman turned out to be pretty good! The New York Times said, “The Sheepman treats the standard rivalry between cattlemen and sheepmen with humor and a certain amount of spoof.” So I guess the horse came through!
Glenn was married to Eleanor Powell and told me many stories about the haunted house they lived in that used to belong to Rudy Valentino. He swore that Valentino’s ghost was still in that house, as furniture was constantly being moved around in certain rooms of the mansion. Both by day and night this phenomenon would occur.
Once they came home from a late night party with friends to find their living room in disarray. At first, they thought they had been burglarized, but nothing was missing. Since nothing had been taken they assumed it was a prankster, until one evening after they had retired they heard a loud noise downstairs and rushed in to find chairs and sofas in odd arrangements that defied common logic. And of course no one was in the house except them. So, Glenn if you read this, know that you were partially responsible for my early learning experience in the fuzzy world of paranormal.
I sat across a huge mahogany desk from a loud-mouthed, adorable man. His cigar was longer than he was, and he spoke on five phones at once. He was a five-foot-five concentration of human spark and his name was Mike Todd.
“Listen kid, I’m makin’ this picture and Merle Oberon cain’t do it. She’s too old, and besides I want you to do it, to play a campy Hindu princess, okay?”
“A Hindu princess with red hair and freckles?”
“I said campy didn’t I?”
On the way out I asked Mike Todd if he was certain he wanted a Scotch-Irish Hindu. His reply was:
“Well, the highest class Hindu’s look like you and besides everybody’s just people. You’re married to a Scotch-Irish Jap aren’t you? And if I come over to Japan, I’ll be a joop. That’s Japanese for Jew. Now, get over to Western Costume and have Irene dress you and dye your hair, you’re due in Durango tonight to join the crew.”
I arrived in Durango, Colorado, dressed in a sari with black hair and a bewildered look. Meeting me at the airport was the British aristocrat-actor, David Niven who almost died when he laid eyes on me, because his feelings were that princess Aouda should be authentic, not campy. We didn’t get off to a good start. He didn’t treat me very well because he thought that I was miscast. I didn’t like David on that movie. He was snotty.
Cantinflas, the great Mexican actor/comic who played Passepartout was a terrific man. He not only was a great actor and comic but a humanitarian as well. He donated large sums of money and time to the many orphanages in Mexico for underprivileged children.
Bobby Newton, who played Inspector Fix and used to stash all of his scotch in his walking stick, was adorable. But, none could top the producer, Mike Todd, in originality and craziness. Once we moved our location to San Diego, he would stand on the bridge of our ship tossing expensive anchovies and appetizers into the air and yelling, “Where are my birds, my Siegels, my Jewish birds”, as the sea gulls dived for the food.
Marlene Dietrich became my friend and mentor. She taught me many things about lighting myself on camera – key light low and camera high for us girls, with just the opposite for men. Marlene only wore wigs because she had thin hair. She owned a thin gold chain that was an instant face-lift. Sidney Gillaroff, the great artist of hair, used to make real tight pin curls. Marlene’s gold chain had a hook on it and Sidney would loop in a hairpin, taking one end of the chain and pull it real tight to the other side. The results were the tightening of the facial muscles and skin. That’s why everyone thought she was one of the first to use cosmetic surgery – but it was the gold chain. It was an au natural face-lift. Of course, those of us who tried the gold chain… we all had terrible headaches by lunch.
At 7:00 AM we would all arrive at the makeup trailer. Gene Simmons, Kathryn Crosby, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene and the rest of us all sitting there, waiting for Sydney to do his magic. Elizabeth would normally be made up the night before, because she always slept late in the morning. She would sleep on one of those Japanese neck blocks to keep her hair in place, and then come right to the set.
These were interesting times in the movies and on this picture there was never a dull moment. Mike Todd who was rooming with Evelyn Keys, moved Evelyn out and Marlene in. Pending labor strikes were averted at the last moment. On location in Japan a wave washed the key camera overboard.
The main reason I accepted this roll is because filming would take me to Japan and I would have the chance to spend cherished time with my husband, Steve, in the land that he lived in and loved. So, despite the little annoyances, a wonderful thing happened: I became pregnant.
Arriving in Hollywood to finish The Trouble With Harry, I bought a second-hand green Buick for forty five dollars on credit, and headed for the beach at Malibu. I leased a tiny one-bedroom apartment set on high pilings that shook with each wave that crashed beneath it.
All my money had been spent in New York, paying off debts and my trip to the land of make-believe.
To make matters worse when The Trouble With Harry was released it was an artistic success, subtle in its humor, but not commercial. I faired slightly better in the reviews. I was hailed as the kooky young discovery or the kooky young star. For the fan magazines and gossip columnists, I was fresh copy.
“She lives in a one room shack at the beach. She doesn’t own a formal dress or a piece of fur. Sometimes the cop at the gate turns her away in the morning, saying ‘the casting calls are filled for the day’.”
But, nothing could have been worse than my first film under contract to Hal Wallis. I was to be the little girl who ran up the stairs in a little sun suit, or a bat suit, while Jerry Lewis chased me.
The film, Artists and Models, with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis became a learning experience – not about acting – but about life and two human beings much different than how they presented themselves to be in those zany comedies. In private Dean was the funny one. Jerry was a mechanical genius whose state of the art electronics filled his dressing room.
When Dean and Jerry entered the studio commissary, a mundane lunch break became sheer chaos. They started food fights with actors, cast and crew. Once Marlene Dietrich was the ungrateful recipient of a lunch plate. One day, they walked in and cut off the ties of the studio heads and smeared butter on their faces. When they were around it was pure bedlam and everyone laughed until they cried at the crazy antics of America’s favorite comics.
I came to understand what technique was about in terms of straight man versus comic. I could see the importance of leaving talented people alone; leaving the talent unbridled to seek its own level of brilliance. Stars like Dean and Jerry were very sensitive to little things and I learned what artistic temperament was all about.
When they weren’t performing, the tension around the set was awful. I didn’t know what was going on in their lives or what the change was about, but I could sense that something was winding down in that great partnership. After Artists and Models they did one more film together. Hollywood or Bust was their last picture together.
This film introduced me to Dean Martin. We went on to make five movies together and he became the leading man that I appeared with most. He became my lifelong friend and protector.
When my parents enrolled me in dancing classes to strengthen my weak ankles they had no idea I would learn to dance and eventually become a chorus girl and understudy to Carol Haney in the Broadway musical, The Pajama Game. Carol had a reputation for going on no matter what, but she had weak ankles and sprained one very badly. I was thrust into her role in the play. I never understood, or for that matter, thought much about the ankle karma. But that was how I became a star.
Unknown to me, there were two men in the audience of that Pajama Game performance that would change my life forever. Hal Wallis, the Hollywood producer who discovered Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and Doc Ericson, a representative for the legendary director, Alfred Hitchcock.
Here I was, a nineteen year old chorus girl, with no acting experience. Hitchcock put me in a room with Mildred Natwick, Edmund Gwenn and John Forsythe. These were the premiere actors on Broadway and now were my co-stars. We were together during the first reading and having no previous experience, I just read it instinctively. When we were finished, Hitch, in his quirky sense of humor, said, “You have the guts of a bank robber.” Because of Hitch’s reputation, I knew I had the job!
I was scared, but curious, and yearned for the learning experience as I joined the film crew in Vermont. I have fond memories of all the cast. In the beginning John Forsythe tolerated me as an amateur, but then realized I had an instinct for acting and started to appreciate this gift. I learned so much from all of them.
Hitchcock was a connoisseur of food and had great knowledge in this area. We shot in Vermont because the hotel we stayed in, The Lodge, was famous for the best food in Stowe, Vermont. He liked the leaves of Vermont, but he really appreciated the food. There was always plenty on the set and I ate all of it because it was free. In my days as a chorus girl I hadn’t had much to eat. I existed on graham crackers and peanut butter. When I began the picture I was svelte and lithe, but by the time I buried Harry for the last time, the head of the studio called me… I think the word was blimp.
Hitch had a mind-tease code that kept you alert. One morning he came waddling toward me, eyes twinkling, roly-poly stomach well out in the lead.
“Pleasant period following death.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Genuine chopper, old girl, genuine chopper.”
“And after your first line – dog’s feet.”
Finally, Hitch explained his version of cockney rhyming slang:
Good mourning. (Pleasant period following death)
Real-Axe. (Genuine chopper)
After you start your first line, paws. (Dog’s feet)
What a mind. I have the greatest appreciation for this mystery meister who gave me the freedom of artistic expression, to seek and learn from some of the best. Hitch, wherever you are, I love you and will see you again…